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Mann Ramblings

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About Mann Ramblings

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    A Real Mann has Tattoos

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    Ann Arbor, Michigan
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    Writing, Drawing, Painting, Making Pottery and designing more tattoos for myself. (It's very addicting.)

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  1. Mann Ramblings

    Chapter 80

    Dulcet tunes and operatic vocals sang of how to survive heartache and lost love. The control panel cracked under Roku’s fist and the audio stream abruptly ended. Lies were meant to be silenced. No one ever survives losing their love. Fingerprints smudged the over-touched holographic image of Arad Yosei had imported from the Ansariland’s security files. Between the point where they’d finally given into each other and finding the Nightingale, he grinned watching Roku paint in his tablet. Arad was happy then. Roku let out a shuddering exhale. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t shed any more tears, but some days keeping his word seemed a wasted effort. The sketching tablet laid on the floor, gathering a fine layer of dust. He couldn’t bring himself to paint new images, and paging through the sketches had ruined him for days. Memories cut far too deep. Some day they might bring back a tide of fondness, but for now they only drowned him. Unfortunately, nothing could be done for Arad. He’d been dead long before the ship could approach the colony of Moreau. Yosei was brokering clearance when Roku had woken. Alarmed by the blood still lingering on the scrubbed floor, he followed the scent of his mate to find him pale and still in the medbed. Gone. Forever. He’d clawed the bed refusing to let them near even though he wouldn’t be going anywhere. The medical staff had to sedate him— No. He wasn’t taking that road today. Six excruciating weeks had passed—wait, make that seven—and he’d been on that path every day, sometimes more than once a day. If he didn’t find a new route soon, he would fade into nothing. Roku just didn’t know how. He kissed the image and carefully placed the frame on the nightstand, so he could say goodnight to him every night and wake up to him every morning. From the way his body ached all the time to the pull of tangled clothing he’d been wearing for the past three days, climbing out of bed was a trial. It wasn’t as if he’d slept. Last night he’d spent hours patting the side of the bed where Arad should have been and never would be. An unpleasant amount of light spilled into the small studio quarters as the shutters pivoted open revealing the colony of Moreau’s elaborate architecture. Pristine spires of every height imaginable dotted the landscape interconnected with walkways allowing easy travel between them. Sleek transports floated between building in designating airways, making no sound to disrupt the serenity. Roku wished he could enjoy it. The morning was the usual exercise in forced routine. Having forgotten to set the program again, he had to set the beverage dispenser to make coffee, needing the caffeine jolt before he chewed down a flavorless ration bar formulated for his specific dietary requirements after his doctors and therapist noticed the first signs of weight loss. Eating was easier than receiving lectures. Stripping off his shirt, he crossed the room to the lavatory. It took less than a dozen steps since his quarters were more of a hotel room than apartment. Everything: bedroom, the virtually unused kitchenette, and sitting area existed in one cube shaped space with doors for a closet and restroom flanking the bed along one wall. It was just enough to pace a circle in. He did what needed to be done, following a routine of hygiene ingrained in him by a life long past scorched out of his brain. Showering required more inertia than present, so he opted to splash hot water on the foulest body parts. A haunted creature spied back at him in the mirror. The medical staff had done marvelous work undoing the damage wrought by Shichi and Bryce. Not a scar showed, not a mark on his flesh. The epitome of physical health. Except where what should be sleek fur, laid dull and matted in places. “What are you doing to yourself?” he asked the reflection. Arad never gave up, no matter how slim the odds, ever the master of surviving anything thrown his way. He’d taken spacewalks and endured torture only to come back to save them all. Tenacity was his gift. Sullying his memory was unacceptable. The least Roku could do was honor his mate by learning the lesson. To do so, he would have to leave the apartment. Again, if only to keep the therapist from knocking on his door. But before he could leave, there was one thing he had to do. He retrieved the medical dispenser from the shelf and check the readout. Only four days left, he would have to com Dr. Windsor to refill the prescription. She’d make him endure another round of conversations about his physical and mental health and being excluded from details of the investigation into ApexCorp’s affairs. However, the meds were critical, and he would persevere. Staring into his own reflection for courage, he touch the device to his shoulder and pressed the button, feeling the warm tingle feed under his skin. “I promise, Arad. No other mate. I will love you forever.” The drug would suppress the stupid biological trigger he couldn’t escape. He’d already imprinted once. There wouldn’t be a second time. It wasn’t safe to set him loose in Moreau without it. Grief had held it off in the beginning, but Dr. Windsor’s tests showed it could reemerge without warning. So the formula was tailored for him exclusively. Apparently, only the black market DemiShou had this problem and each had to be dealt with individually. Roku hated the association of being considered illicit property, even if he was now a free man. Kilts were no longer part of his life outside the Ansariland, so he walked the street to the recreation center dressed in shirt, boots, and pants. DemiShou of every breed and species walked in equal numbers with humans, everyone coexisting without fear or suspicion. He understood the prejudice, even if he couldn’t attached a specific memory to it. Moreau was designed for his kind. A paradise of sorts. Most politely nodded as he passed, likely curious at the new arrival who rarely saw daylight, but they never interrupted him, as if they could scent the pain and loss staining his soul. The architecture continued to be unfazed by his pain. Sleek and efficient in shades of white and grey, the entire colony appeared to be more about clean aesthetics and practicality than making any kind of artistic statement, in spite of the impressive network of building structures. It succeeded in function untouched by the lives of its inhabitants. The neutral environment allowed Roku to stride to the center without finding something fascinating to focus on because these days nothing held much interest. Only a few minutes passed before he arrived, the building much like its surroundings of plastic, metal and concrete. Thankfully, well-designed directional signage hung on every corner and facade. It was difficult to get lost here, and Roku had tried on more than one occasion. Frosted into opaque panels, the handleless door sat cleanly mounted into the outer wall. Roku touched the adjacent monitor as prompted. A perfunctory beep accompanied the change in displayed text. Seo Eijiro Classification: DemiShou Tiger ID: A621-S35FC ***Access Granted*** Every time he saw the name, he had to look twice. Dr. Windsor had shared some information regarding ApexCorp when records of the project’s sealed “donor list” had surfaced and Roku’s identity had been verified. Seo Eijiro of EarthAsian descent. Military employee of ApexCorp killed in action during a food riot. Without memories of his past, the name lacked connection and the attached photo was of a stranger. Of a man who didn’t exist anymore. Hardly an endearing way to view oneself. Apparently he was Seo Eijiro, but in the end he didn’t know who that man was. “Excuse me.” Startled out of his fog, Roku turned and found a young woman waiting to enter. Averting his eyes as if it could hide his embarrassment, he stepped to one side. “I’m sorry. “ “Nothing to worry about,” she said as she tapped the panel for access and entered without a worry. Without the specters lording over his every second of every day. She went inside and moved on with her life. Straightening his spine, Roku took her example and stepped through the open door. Human and DemiShou both made up the fair number of facility users, although there was some segregation based on DemiShou strength levels for safety. Rows of strength machines and exercise areas dotted the floor plan. Roku ignored them all, heading for the section in the corner fitted with martial arts training equipment. The sparring circle made his eyes burn with too many memories of the Nightingale, so he gave it his back in favor of the striking dummies. He choose one mounted centered along the wall, focused on the grey mannequin’s lack of features. It could stand in for anyone he’d ever met or any person he’d ever forgotten before his rebirth. Perfect. Air in through the nose, out the mouth in a controlled rush. Roku tried to wash his nerves into a steady flow as he adjusted his stance, centered his weight properly. He snapped out a fist and struck the dummy. The padded surface remained unblemished, fortified for a DemiShou’s power level. So he struck it again. Then again. And again. The dummy was no one. It wasn’t Vosh. It wasn’t Hodge. It wasn’t First Commander Bard. It wasn’t Shichi. It wasn’t Bryce. All of them dead and only one by his hand, yet the target took their punishments in kind. Each and every one of them had a hand in Arad’s end. Nothing could absolve them of that or his failing to protect Arad from their machinations. Guilt fed into rage and the only outlet was right here, beating their effigies until the urge eventually passed. The room reduced down to the smack of fist against padding, his rapid pulse, and his heaving intake of oxygen. Over and over and over. “Seo Eijiro, stand down! That’s an order!” The jarring command shocked Roku back into the world. His hands ached, knuckles bloody, and the sparring dummy’s seams were burst and the padding in tatters. Stepping back in a daze, he turned, scowling at the interruption. A crowd had formed, human and DemiShou both, wel outside his reach. A palpable tension thickened the air. One human woman stood out from the crowd, standing closer yet still at a safe distance, because Moreau’s primary director, Dr. Kian Windsor, was no fool. “Forgive me for issuing a command, Eijiro, but I guessed I needed something more dramatic to get your attention. I’m told you’ve been at this for over thirty minutes. Perhaps it’s time to time a break?” Tall and willowy, Dr. Windsor’s frail appearance belied her inner strength. Her authority was forged in a fierce intellect and gentle demeanor which disarmed the most jaded opponent. Anyone who believed her weak, found themselves schooled in the most subtle ways. Roku couldn’t imagine her raising her voice, which is probably why she was able to break his single mindedness in the first place. Despite the center’s security staff’s warnings, she stepped forward at a cautious pace but without fear. Roku respected her too much to harm her. Dr. Windsor had been his personal doctor since he woke up in Moreau after being sedated on the Ansariland. She oversaw his rehabilitation and therapy instead of relegating his care to a lower ranking but capable staff member. It made his integration into Moreau marginally tolerable. Kind eyes, and sympathetic hand on Roku’s arm, Dr. Windsor spoke just loud enough to keep the bystanders out of the conversation. “I think I’d like to take a walk, Mr. Eijiro. Would you be a gentleman and keep an old woman company?” Without waiting for a reply, Dr. Windsor circled and walked through the parting crowd, proving it wasn’t really a question in the first place. He thought about refusing her implied demand, but the tiny voice buried under his lost memories urged him to comply with authority. People gave him a wide berth as he followed her out the door and into the courtyard. Serene and elegant, her wavy silver hair had been tied back in a loose bun as always. Her footsteps light and ethereal, Windsor’s delicate coat flowed as she glided through the unoccupied greenspace. Most likely, she’d requested to clear the area for privacy. If she was upset with him, it didn’t show. She led the way down stone pathways until they ended somewhere near the center he guessed, at a circular copse of trees resting behind a masonry retaining wall. She took a seat on a bench opposite and waited with a casual patience for Roku to share the space. He did. “I don’t think of you as old.” Oh, Roku knew Dr. Windsor had been subtly modified—humans didn’t stay in their prime well past one hundred years as she had—but he’d always had the impression extending her lifespan was more about her dedication to her work than vanity. Even Windsor’s laugh was artful and disarming. “That’s lovely of you to say. And here I’d always pictured you as too honorable to lie. Isn’t life strange when it surprises you? Even so, don’t think I don’t appreciate the sentiment. A lady likes to be appreciated at any age. Tell me, how are you doing today?” Clutching the seat’s edge, he forced his claws not to extend. Windsor knew exactly what state he was in. Never unkind in her observations, she still carried a sharp wisdom with her experience. The facility had notified her. Most likely, his file had her contact information for odd or aggressive behavior, and his session with the training dummy was certainly aggressive. And that truth ashamed him, so he avoided it for now. “I need a refill on my repression prescription.” A knowing hum sang from her. She’d seen his evasions on more than occasion. “Make an appointment. I want to check your baseline before I approve it.” “Can’t I just stop in at one of the clinics?” Windsor tipped her head back so she could look at the treetops. “You know how this works. Your customization is classified. Just like the others we’ve liberated from ApexCorp’s scheme. You know that. The fewer who see your genetic profiles, the safer you’ll be. My office. 0800 hours sharp. A little flattery is not going to exempt you from the rules.” “Yes, ma’am.” Silence in the courtyard bordered on sanctuary. Little by little, Roku felt his anger abate, in no small part to the nonjudgemental woman sitting next to him. His files were open to her at any time. She’d written most of them in fact. However, she never weaponized them. Any self-recrimination he experienced was all his own doing. “Have you seen your friends lately?” Speaking of which… “You mean Yosei and Pakko? I wouldn’t exactly call them my friends. More like co-survivors.” The treetops no longer fascinating, Windsor shifted her attention to the flower beds in the distance. “A fair description. All of you shared a unique experience. Often people bond under such extreme circumstances in ways other people can’t understand.” Roku sighed. “I’m trying hard to forget everything about those circumstances.” She turned her head to focus on another part of the gadren, and he couldn’t help but appreciate her efforts. No stares he could interpret as accusatory. No eye contact to wither underneath. Their conversation had more hallmarks of a mother and son talking than doctor and patient. “No one ever forgets things like that. Not really. The best we can hope for it to make peace with it. Although avoiding the topic isn’t exactly the solution either.” Her gaze examined the flowers at the base of the trees. “Trying to forget. Does that have anything to do with the dirty look you gave me when I called out your name in public?” “I’m not used to that name. Seo Eijiro. I don’t know who that person is.” “Would you prefer I call you Roku?” “I don’t want anyone calling me that anymore.” Too many dashed memories were associated with it. He didn’t have the strength to say it out loud, but she knew regardless. “What would you like me to call you then?” Roku paused, looking for the answer amidst a shaky inhale. “I don’t know.” Reaching over, she patted his hand in a grandmotherly way. He continued to grip the bench, using the sturdy form to anchor him in more ways than one. Eyes burning, he cast his gaze to the treetops, hoping he might find some answers in the green. “Yosei said she hasn’t heard from you since she showed you the Ansariland security feed.” “Don’t blame her. I insisted.” “I’m well aware. I only wish she’d waited until you were better ready.” “There is no better time. I needed to see how it happened. I needed to know how he died.” Roku hadn’t known there even was a security feed to view before Yosei mentioned it. She’d surreptitiously activated it when she started working on repairs in case she needed additional evidence. Torrins has disabled the feature, no doubt to hide proof of his less than charitable activities. He’d watched the video of Bryce ambushing Arad while he slept, helpless from Shichi’s bite. Bryce’s sadistic ranting. Arad’s heroic resistance. Bryce injecting him. Arad gunning her down before he succumbed to the poison. How many times had he repeated the scene? “Did it help?” Roku scrubbed his face against his shoulder without dislodging his hands. “Arad died saving us all. He was a man with nothing, jaded and cynical, who shared everything. Knowing he died a hero makes me proud, even if it’s killing me that he’s gone.” “You awoke only a few months ago as a DemiShou and in that short time, you have been part of something equal parts wonderful and horrible. Everything I’ve heard from our discussions, Yosei and Pakko Garcia’s testimony, and my own research tells me a story of your Arad being a worthy man who was lost far too soon.” Sympathy, not pity, wove it’s way between every syllable. It didn’t make it any easier to hear. “Why are you saying this as if I don’t already know it?” “Because you’re allowed your grief. You’ve earned it better than most. If you weren’t so depressed, I’d say something was seriously wrong with your reaction.” “I’m not depressed.” She finally pivoted her head to face him. “If you were any further down the hole, I would have you on suicide watch.” His brow creasing left a near-blinding pressure on his eyes, as he ground his teeth. “I already have a therapist.” “And I expect you to make another appointment with Dr. Mercia before he ends up on your doorstep again.” “I’m assuming you have some purpose to this visit beyond dredging up my psychiatric schedule?” He hated this line of conversation enough to growl involuntarily. Windsor, as usual, was not intimidated. “Yes, as a matter of fact, there is. At some point, we need to decide what you’ll do longterm.” “I’m not ready to make that decision.” “Oh, I know. And I’m not trying to rush you either. I felt it was time to plant a seed or two. If you decide to continue living on Moreau, we need to find you employment. You don’t strike me as a man who will lay back watching soap operas all day gorging on sweets.” He huffed at the ridiculous image. “No. I can’t picture myself doing that.” “I think we can help find you someplace you’ll be content. And maybe someday happy.” “I can’t picture that either.” Windsor sighed, her lithe shoulders dropping a fraction. “I don’t suppose you can. Whoever coined the phrase time heals all wounds should have his eyes gouged out.” “Can I help?” The tiniest smile brightened her whole face. “See? You made a joke. Dark and morbid, but still a joke. There’s hope for you yet.” “Perhaps.” “Well, there’s no need to worry right now. I don’t expect you to make any significant choices anytime soon.” “Thank you.” With an effortless glide, Windsor rose to her feet. A single lock of silver hair had come loose, brushing her cheek and neck, yet she paid it no mind. As in everything, nothing fazed her composure. It made her a reassuring beacon within his dismantled world. “In the meantime, would you come with me to the lab?” Titling his head, he narrowed his eyes at her. “Why?” “I’d like to show you something.” Windsor glanced down at his hands. “But you’ll have to let go of the bench first.” He did.
  2. Mann Ramblings

    Chapter 79

    “If I still had a torque wrench, I’d have you bless it, you lucky bastard. Can’t believe you’re alive. I was gonna slap you to try and wake you up, but your face it still all fucked up.” Of course Arad was alive. The dead couldn’t hurt this much. “Thanks, Pakko. I think.” A mangy pit fighter once told Arad the more times you got knocked out, the more brain damage you’d end up with. Man, he hoped that guy was wrong. A seam in the metal floor dug into his back. No worse than what he’d suffered earlier, but waking up on the deck confused him. The violent jump must have thrown him from his seat. Great. Hopefully his injuries weren’t made any worse. Pakko helped him roll over enough so he could get his feet underneath him. It wasn’t pretty. Exhaustion and unhealed wounds dragged a cry out of him as he stood. He was forced to lean on Pakko as he wobbled, sucking air in stuttering wheezes. “I need to get to Roku.” “We will, but you can barely stand. A minute or two isn’t going to make a difference.” Pakko was probably right and he hated it. Minimal lighting cast the bridge in harsh shadow, but it couldn’t hide Pakko’s swollen eyes and sallow skin. His body was stable despite the claw marks. Perhaps the initial meltdown had blown through and given him a chance to vent. Arad hoped so. It might be selfish, but he wanted someone else to share the burden for a while. His own soul was stretched thin and translucent. It wouldn’t hold up to much more stress. “How are we doing? Is my ship busted?” Arad asked as Pakko eased him back into his chair. It felt a million times better than standing. “We’re running on emergency power, while all the systems reboot. I don’t think there’s any damage we can’t handle, but damn that was lucky. That fold was suicidal.” “Did it work?” “Yeah. I guess you could say that.” Pakko turned to face forward, and Arad followed his line of sight. Arad stalled in mid-inhale. “Oh.” Peering out of the main viewscreen, a new set of stars blinked in and out, competing with a dancing wave of debris. Lazy and weightless in the endless night, chunks of metal and parts of a flagship landing bay ripped away by the fold jump’s bubble pirouetted in front of the bow. Some pieces sparked, refusing to die off like the rest. Soldiers’s floating bodies disturbed him the most. Frost glistened off skin, faces almost visible in the inconsistent light. Some were intact. Some still clutched their weapons as if they could ward off their untimely deaths. In his haste to escape, the idea of people being caught in the fold hadn’t occurred to him. Words like explosive decompression, suffocating, and freezing vacuum came to mind. Bile bubbled and rose in Arad’s stomach, offering him a taste of guilt. Arad tipped his head downward. He’d seen enough bloodshed and cruelty, as well its aftermath for one lifetime. He didn’t need to see more. Pakko placed a hand on Arad’s shoulder, taking care to be gentle with his support. “What do you think Bard would have done with us?” Arad’s snort lacked even a smidgen of humor. “Either take us to prison and dump us in a deep, dark hole or put us in front of a firing squad and dump us in a deep, dark hole.” “Then I can’t feel so bad about this.” Pakko reached over and touched a panel. Large shutters slid down the viewports hiding the destruction from sight. Arad squashed the minor offense over Pakko knowing where the control in favor for a major sense of gratitude. “Thank you.” People had died by Arad’s actions. He knew this. Arguments of self-defense ran rampant alongside his internal accusations of murder. He wasn’t a righteous man. He’d committed crimes out of necessity in the past, but nothing had ever led to someone’s death. That he knew of. Pakko could compartmentalize his survival better than he could, probably because of his dodgy history, but Arad would have to live with the guilt of killing people who meant him harm. Absolving yourself when saving your life and others sounded better in fiction than in reality. However, there were more who’d hurt him that weren’t part of Bard’s crew. “What about the Nightingale?” “What Nightingale?” Pakko queued up a security feed—from the shockingly still functioning sensor array—aimed at the temporary tunnel between the ships. Or that was between the ships. Still attached to the Ansariland, the tunnel swayed in the nonexistent wind, while splinters of the Nightingale’s docking wall topped the shaft. A technological flower in the vacuum of space. Anything, or anyone, in the docking bay would have been lost when the atmosphere voided, or torn apart by the gravimetric forces the fold employed. Either way, the Nightingale was ready for salvage. “I think we’re finally in the clear,” Pakko said. “I think you’re right.” The relief brought by that statement began edging out the regret. A beginning at least. Many days, weeks, and months would pass before he’d talk openly about the whole mess. “When everything was hitting the fan… I know you were really freaked out, but I couldn’t believe how you handled Bard. I’ve never seen anyone talk out of their ass so easily.” “Where I’m from, people like me who wind up in jail are never heard from again. Lying to corrupt cops pretty much lands in the zone of mandatory survival skills.” “Just saying it was pretty smooth.” Pakko’s voice trembled, probably as much as Arad’s. His attempt at humor did a poor job of covering his grief, alive and thriving barely under the surface. Arad sympathized enough to set aside his distrust for Pakko’s hand in their current situation. He didn’t have the energy or interest in pulling that thread. Too much unravelling had already been done. They sat in silence, drawing strength as the seconds and minutes passed without any new disaster striking. Relief lightened Arad’s shoulders, as the overhead lighting brightened and additional consoles came to life. Perhaps the ship wouldn’t crack open and suck them out after all. “It’s so nice to see systems coming back online.” Yosei entered the bridge carrying the white medkit in hand, her pink hair even more disheveled than when they’d scrambled on board. “A little more warning before you bash us around like that. We made the jump?” “Yeah. Me made it.” Pakko gave her a shaky smile, but he genuinely looked happy to see her. Yosei’s eyes narrowed at the lack of view. “The shuttered are closed. How close to Bard’s ship were we?” “Inside.” “Ew.” Arad didn’t have it in him to talk about the warzone outside. Not yet. “How’s Roku?” “Sleeping. There’s no anti-venom in your medkit, but I was able to hit him with a broad spectrum antibiotic. All we can do it let him rest. I think he’s strong enough to get through it. His pulse is weak but steady, so I think he’s managing.” Arad’s eyes burned at the news in a good way for once. “How do you know what to do?” “Human-DemiShou first aid was part of my job requirements. Honestly, I’m way better with tech.” “I’ll take what I can get. Thank you.” Yosei closed in on Pakko, grimacing at the mangled remains of his clothing. “C’mon. Let’s go to the lav and get you cleaned and bandaged. Oh, so gross. We’re gonna have to soak that shirt off you. Hope I don’t barf.” “We can dig up some spare clothes. There’s plenty left over. I’m going to check on Roku.” Arad climbed out of the chair, pausing to test his stability. Pakko reached out a hand. “Do you want some help?” “No thanks. Go take care of yourself. I’ll be fine.” Tired of feeling weak, he waved them off, well aware of their watchful gaze as he made careful steps down the hall. He tried not to hurry. The chances of landing on his face was high, but his cautious stride let him take in the scenery. The Ansariland made not have been sleek and stylish like the Nightingale, but its bones were solid and had sheltered him for months, been his home. His home. When was the last time he could say that about anything? Anywhere? The ship was his. No else had a legitimate claim on it, and he drew comfort from the fact. A comfort which sprouted confidence in his future. A future including the wounded tiger lying in bed before him. In the bed they shared. The sound of Arad’s feet scuffing the bedroom floor as he entered didn’t cause a reaction in Roku, and it touched a note of worry in his heart. Sneaking up on Roku hadn’t been possible. Ever alert, ever listening. However, the rise and fall of Roku’s chest pushed back his concerns, even if he couldn’t close the door on them. The sight of him kept it open. Bandage pads were applied to so many places on his body and Yosei had used an insane amount of medical strapping to hold them in place. As in five times what was necessary. Holy crap, she practically mummified him. Well, she did say she was better with tech. A thought of warning Pakko drifted into his head, but Arad let it drift right out. Pakko was on his own. It hurt to see him so broken. His protector. His mate. Strangely, Roku’s condition hadn’t diminished his power, his breath stealing presence, even if it left him defenseless. And just like when he’d first found the DemiShous in the cryotube, weightless in amniotic fluid, Arad swore to be by his side no matter what. Roku would survive. With all they’d endured, the universe owed them that much. “We made it, Roku. You just have to get better and come back to me.” He envied Roku’s deep, quiet peace. How his untroubled brow remained unmoving even as Arad leaned over and place a kiss upon it. Cuts and slashes couldn’t find him sleeping. What a lovely thought. Taking care for his own sake and Roku’s, Arad crawled into bed, nestling himself against fur and muscle and heat. It may have only been a few days, but being in his own bed brought about enough safety, he could allow himself to drift off. A hard yank in Arad’s hair dragged him out of sleep and bed, upright against a body he didn’t recognize. His yell froze when he heard the snarling voice in his ear, horribly familiar and branded into his memories. The source of nightmares for the rest of his days. “Not one sound. Not a move. Or I’ll kill the tiger,” Bryce whispered, with that damned hypodermic gun pressed into Roku’s arm. “You’ll both be dead long before anyone will find you.” Newfound panic ripped Arad into full awareness in an instant. She’s on the ship. She’s on the ship. She’s on the ship. It did not, however, focus him past the fear swelling in his chest, robbing him of breath. Bryce’s unsteady chuckle was tinged with madness. “Shichi’s bite may have been weakened since I milked him, but I guarantee there’s more than enough of his venom in this hypo to do the job. You think you’ve ruined everything, but I still have moves to play. ApexCorp may have cancelled my contract, but with enough money, anyone can be bought. It’s the one universal truth even they can agree on. Profit from the bull should improve my bargaining position. You can make sure everything else falls into place.” “What makes you think I’d help you?” “Because if you do, you’ll get your fondest dream. Deep down we both know what you’ve always wanted. Don’t you remember what you told me? All you’ve ever wanted was to save Roku.” Arad wanted to scream. He couldn’t stop shaking out of shame and rage. On her operating table, he’d divulged so much. Every wish, every moment of life before and after the Ansariland with each cut of her scalpel. All in some vain attempt to appease her sadistic urges. She had violated him in so many ways, and now she wielded it as leverage. He didn’t want it to work. “Unlike you, I don’t enjoy wasting the lives of DemiShou. Having Roku on my side will make things easier. I’ll like having a bodyguard while I negotiate the bull’s price.” “Roku won’t help you.” “When you’re gone, he’ll imprint on me and I’ll take very good care of him.” Snarling, Arad spun and took a swing at her, but she countered it and with one punch, drove him to the floor against the bed. More pain racked his already compromised body. Arad was no fighter. He’d spent years avoiding conflict to avoid the attention of the authorities, and she was trained military, even if only as a medic. Arad wheezed, feeling every searing pull at his ribs. “You’re a monster.” Bryce stood over him, well within reach of Roku. Bloodstains tainted her normally pristine lab coat—clearly Shichi’s or she would have probably left it behind—and she seemed to be ignoring the stab wound in her shoulder. Perspiration dotted her dark skin in sporadic highlights. She shifted her weight back and forth like a stalking predator, waiting for her moment as she blocked the only exit. “Human beings are monsters. I intend to be much more. I can still transcend. To do that, I’ll need the ship, but I don’t need the crew. I promise I’ll make it quick. It will be humane when I put them down. I promise. They won’t even feel it. “If you want me to keep my promise, you’re not going to scream or warn them. If you do, I will tie you down and make you watch as I dissect them. I will cut out their eyes, peel off their skin, and remove their organs. They will be awake through the whole procedure. Don’t think I won’t. You know how much we enjoyed our time together and that will be even more glorious.” All teeth, Bryce had yet to stop smiling like a demented clown. Back on the Nightingale, she was disturbed, but now, she was unhinged. “If you make me do this, I’ll be forced to do the same to Roku. It would be a waste of a fine specimen, but I will. Don’t worry, I’ll save you for last, so you won’t miss even one beautiful moment. You’ll know you’ve failed before you die, and it will be your fault.” Angry tears streaked down Arad’s cheeks. Roku hadn’t so much as twitched, oblivious to the danger. He gritted his teeth, so he didn’t accidentally cry out. Pakko and Yosei wouldn’t be prepared. Not for this. There was no reason not to believe Bryce’s threats. She would kill them all. “Who’s first? I’ll even let you choose. Yosei or Pakko? I don’t care which.” Mind racing, Arad spun his trembling gaze around the room. Think fast. Ideas. There had to be something, anything he could use—the butt of her gun across Arad’s jaw snapped his head to the side. Copper filled his mouth, pain lancing through his teeth up through his cheek, but he kept his mouth shut to keep from screaming. Bending at the waist, she leaned in close as if he hadn’t heard her the first time. “I’m waiting for an answer. Which one?” Blinking the spots out of his vision, he glared at the medical device she used as a weapon, and it all became clear. Pawn takes Queen. Bryce was right about one thing. All Arad wanted was to save Roku. Even back before he’d awakened in the cargo bay, Arad wondered how far it went, how much his promise would sacrifice for the DemiShou’s safety. Roku risked his life, became the wall between them and Shichi went it mattered. He suffered the consequences of being noble. Could Arad say he’d do the same? Yes. Yes he would. All those lessons on staying safe—don’t fight, avoid the cops, don’t make yourself a target. He airlocked them in an instant. She knew his weaknesses? Well, he knew hers too. Blood still pooled in his mouth. Arad spat in her eyes. Crimson splashed across her cheeks and nose, some in her mouth. Shrieking, Bryce reared back in revulsion, wiping at her face like she’d been doused with toxic waste. Rolling to his feet, he shouldered her aside with all his weight, leaped across Roku, and wrenched open a rusty drawer with all his feeble strength. His hand was inside when he felt the pinch in his back, the sudden hiss, and the sickly heat spreading from the mark. Hypodermic gun in hand, Bryce’s clown grin melted away as Arad raised one of Torrins’s pistols—the kind he kept primed and loaded at all times in every bedroom drawer—and pulled the trigger over and over, punching gory holes in her face and chest over until the weapon ran dry, and a few more times for good measure. The world began to dull and lose its sharpness. The venom worked it damage in short time on Vosh. In Arad’s weaker human frame, he imagined it happening much faster. Burning oil sped through his veins, shredding control of his weary flesh. First, the pistol slipped from his numbing fingers, then his legs bent without his permission and he slumped to the floor. Dammit, Torrins. You were worthwhile after all. The floor cooled his cheek as he watched Bryce’s body, half-sprawled into the hall. It refused to breathe. Not even so much as a twitch to be found. I saved you Roku. I kept my promise. The world’s edges fogged even at the heat grew into an inferno. Inhales and exhales took on an odd echo, louder than they should be. All sounds were trapped inside a metal can. If he strained, he could make out the rumble of footfalls and incoming voices, even if he couldn’t tell them apart. “Arad? Roku?” “Holy fuck! What happened? Is that Bryce?” “Not any more. Is that the hypo gun she used on Vosh?” “Oh no no no no no…” “C’mon, hurry! Help me get him to sick bay!” “No no no no no…” “Pakko! I can’t lift him myself!” “Okay, okay…” Arad rose into the air and flew, the overhead lights zooming over him. The burning had overwhelmed all his injuries. He couldn’t feel his broken fingers or the ache of his swollen eye. Fire was in him, around him, filled his being, and it continued to grow. “Into the medbed!” He stopped flying and the world closed in with mechanical hiss and click. It’s like I’m in a coffin. “Is it working?” Laser lights scanned over him in all directions. Automatic arms and tendrils dancing in and out of his hazy vision, poked and prodded. Arad barely felt them as little more than mild pressure. They couldn’t compete with fire. “It’s mapping out his injuries. Oh my—what did that germaphobic skank do to him? Come on… What? It can’t identify the toxin in his system. It’s says it’s DemiShou in origin.” “Aren’t there DemiShou profiles in the database?” Uh oh. “What do you mean, file not found? Who has a medbed that isn’t completely updated?” That would be Torrins. “Oh no no no no no…” “Stay with me, Arad.” They sound so sad. They actually care what happens. So much movement, so many medical noises Arad didn’t understand. A jarring alarm caught his attention and drew it to a digital drum beat. Is that my heartbeat? It sounds slow. “Do something!” “I can’t! The bed can’t keep up with the toxin. We’re losing him.” I wish Roku were here. Loud banging made everything rock. “No no no no no! Dammit, Arad, fight! Stay awake! We need you!” It’s so hot in here, I think I’ll take a nap. The drum beat rhythm slowed and flattened into a sharp whine and faded into nothing. The room darkened. Oh wait… one last thing. Tell Roku, I love…
  3. Some of you may notice I tweaked the title to I & C in Premium. That's strictly due to the final published version being on Amazon Kindle Unlimited and they need exclusivity. It's not really the same book, so hopefully, this will appease them.

    1. Mann Ramblings

      Mann Ramblings

      Not sure if it was necessary, but I believe in hedging my bets. Approved! :D 

  4. Mann Ramblings

    Chapter 78

    Catching his breath, Arad shoved himself off the wall, leaving a dirty red blotch in his wake. He wasn’t bleeding, but the pervasive sweat from pushing himself so hard kept the blood smears tacky on his chilling skin. The trek to the brig had been longer than he recalled, but he risked sabotaging a few more doors on the way. He’d only been gone a few minutes at most, but he hoped if Bryce found him missing, it might buy precious seconds. Any spare amount he could gather would be worth it. Carbon copy doors lined the corridor, but the one with the bright engaged lock display stood out from the rest. Multiple people had entered the brig before, and it couldn’t be opened from the inside, so he bargained Hodge had never coded the lock for specific crew members. He counted on Bryce’s ego and a lack of opportunity that access wasn’t restricted from this side. He’d cross his fingers on that bet, but a bunch of them were broken. Wrecked hand pinned to his bare stomach by his good arm, Arad leaned in and touched the control. He wondered how much penance a heathen would do for making an endless list of prayers in one day. The door swished open and he prepared for the imminent wave of shock. Roku struggled to say his name. “Arad…” “Fucking hell! What happened? Did Bryce do this to you?” Pakko’s voice quivered in horror, while Yosei gasped aloud. Arad grimaced. He’d avoided his reflection the whole trip back for good reason. Roadkill had always unsettled him. No need for the visual comparison. Everyone’s reactions said enough. “I don’t want to talk about it.” Arad stumbled forward into Roku’s space, burying his face into the tiger’s chest in case he started sobbing. The silk covered muscle mass couldn’t erase the terrible images in his head or the aching pain woven through his body, but it did a great deal to begin softening its edges. “Arad… your face… your fingers… I can smell the blood.” Roku’s words devolved into a yowl dipped in distress and frustrated rage. His shoulders bunched as he resisted the manacles holding his arms. Unable to free himself, he was forced to do no more than curl his bulk around Arad. It would be enough. “I’ll be okay. Honest.” The replying growl didn’t leave Roku sounding convinced. “You’re shivering. Pakko, your coat, and get him some water.” Without a word, Pakko stripped off his light jacket and draped it over Arad’s shoulders with a delicate touch before snatching one of the remaining cups and racing for the sink. “Where’s Bryce and Shichi?” “Distracted on the bridge, but I don’t know for how much longer.” A tap at his shoulder made Arad drag his face out of Roku’s fur where he gratefully accepted the drink from Pakko with his functional hand. “Are you guys okay?” Hodge and Vosh had been shifted to the side and under a bed with one mattress pulled out of the frame and used in place of a non-existing sheet to cover the bodies. Another mattress had been torn apart and judging by the condition of the walls and floor, had been used to scrub down the evidence of murder. Eyes wide and wet, Yosei gripped her tablet like a security blanket. While Arad drank with greedy swallows, Roku didn’t stop nuzzling his head and neck. “I helped Pakko as best I could dealing with Hodge and Vosh. He insisted we couldn’t leave them the way they were. He washed the floor and walls because Yosei couldn’t bear the sight.” Feeling Roku against his skin grounded Arad, yet the metal security collar bumping along his face and neck continued to remind him of why those massive arms weren’t part of his comfort. Turning his head, he found Yosei staring. Her haunted eyes stayed locked onto all his bruising and swelling that left Arad feeling deformed. “Yosei, I need you to unlock Roku’s collar and cuffs,” Arad said. A dim spark of recognition lit her eyes and she nodded. “Right. Just gimme a second.” She tapped at her tablet with timid fingers. “This shouldn’t be so hard.” Sniffling, Yosei paused and wiped her face. “I’ve been trying to delete her dirty spyware out of my pad so I can access Hodge’s server. I can’t believe she hasn’t noticed I’m pawing through her code.” “She’s been a little preoccupied.” Yosei winced. “Sorry.” “Why do you need Hodge’s server?” Chewing her lip, her efforts gained confidence with each passing second. “So I can make a copy of all his data and do this.” Roku’s collar and manacles disengaged with a sharp mechanical huff. They fell to the floor making a loud racket. Suddenly free, Roku’s arms hung at his side as he stretched and groaned, trying to undo the strain of being bound for so long. Before anyone could react, he slapped Yosei’s tablet aside and pinned her to wall with one hand on her collar. His growl frightened Arad. “You betrayed us!” “Oh, wow. You’re really strong.” Yosei paled and her eyes glossed with unshed tears. “I’m so sorry. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. I had no idea Bryce was this crazy. No one was supposed to get hurt.” “A little late for that now.” Arad tuned into her last sentence. “Why was no one supposed to get hurt? Are you working for someone?” She stalled for a moment, but finally blurted out, “I work for PlanetGenCo.” “You gotta be fucking kidding me.” Pakko was not happy. Arad, however, was confused. “Who are they?” “PlanetGenCo are the original designers of the DemiShou matrix. Ow, ow, you’re squeezing me…” Roku raised her up on her toes and she started talking faster. “They found out Dr. Chakijane had been recruited to make new DemiShou, but they couldn’t track down a list of buyers, so they planted me on the Nightingale knowing Hodge’s survivors guilt wouldn’t let him resist helping out a young innocent tech girl.” Pakko was disgusted. “Nice profiling.” “It was the easiest in to the trafficking scheme. My whole goal was to find the client list and get out. The Midas Ascending…I mean the Ansariland going adrift turned it all sideways.” “You’ve been spying on us this whole time?” Fear didn’t dampen Yosei’s resolve as she snarled at Pakko. “You were selling people!” Pakko flinched, his face scrunching up in embarrassment. “We didn’t really get that far.” “Be quiet, Pakko.” Without moving his eyes, Roku returned his attention to Yosei. “You helped them capture us. Chain me like an animal.” Yosei lowered her trembling voice. “I didn’t want to, please believe me, but Bryce watches everything. I had to play along and wait until the Ansariland was fully functional before we could get out of here. When Hodge changed his mind, I thought it was over and I could just stow away on your ship and finish my job. I had no idea Bryce was so crazy. That she would…” She inhaled sharply through her nose, as if forcing herself not to cry. “I prepped the way out. No one knows the jump drive is charged and coordinates are already programmed. It’s shielded, remember you totally have a smuggler’s ship? We can bounce out of here now that I have all the data Hodge stole from ApexCorp and no one will be able to chase us.” “Where do you think you’re taking us?” Roku gave her a shake. Yosei clenched her eyes shut. “Moreau. PlanetGenCorp’s private colony for humans and DemiShou. It’s a safe space outside any corporate jurisdiction.” “They want to study us?” Her eyes shot open, wide in disbelief. “N…No. They don’t want anyone to profit off their designs by creating a black market for DemiShou slaves. They didn’t care when the military classified the process, because it was their idea. They had plenty of other contracts to keep them happy. Geez, ease up, you’re choking me.” Sidling close, Arad placed a hand on Roku’s arm, feeling the unsteady tremors under the surface. He was far from his peak strength. He squeezed Roku’s triceps to make himself known. Sorting out their conflicted positions surrounding the Nightingale crew members would have to wait. Time couldn’t be trusted. “Roku, it doesn’t matter how we got here or where we’re going. We’ve got to get to the Ansariland. First Commander Bard is coming.” Roku snapped his head around in Arad’s direction. “Bard? The officer who killed your crew?” He dropped Yosei and shook out his tired limbs. “We’re leaving now. Yosei, make no mistake, if I even think you’ll turn on us, I’ll maul you faster than you can blink.” Wide-eyed, Yosei gulped. “Duly noted.” Not missing a beat, Roku took the jacket from Arad’s shoulders and helped him put his arms in the sleeves and zip up the front. It didn’t fit—Pakko was more than a few sizes larger than Arad—but covering the bloody results of Bryce’s handiwork did a lot to humanizing Arad’s sense of self. Roku led them into the hallway, only to have Pakko dig in his heels at the threshold. “Wait! We’re not going to leave them…Vosh behind, are we?” Arad’s heart broke at Pakko’s lost expression, torn between survival and grief over what once was. He wanted to give him the time to process, to lay his captain and lover to rest, but their lives were at risk and none of them were at their best. Fingers poking out of the oversized sleeve, Arad touched Pakko’s shoulder. “Pakko. Pakko, look at me. We don’t have a choice. We have to get off this ship now or we’re dead too. Save yourself now and mourn them later.” Pakko nodded. His shoulder bunched as he stifled a sob. The tears still ran down his cheeks. The group started down the hall and Roku picked Arad up in his arms. “I can take care of myself.” Arad rested his weary head along Roku’s neck. “I know you can,” Roku said. Arad wanted to run. Instead, he lay cradled in Roku’s arms as the group hurried through the hall. Roku had to keep shifting his weight, something he wouldn’t have to do if he hadn’t been manacled for so long. He hated being a burden, but Arad was running on whispers of fuel and if he wasn’t being carried, they might as well have left him behind with what remained of Hodge and Vosh. They strode through the halls with a speed on the brink of reckless. Everyone was on high alert. The electrified shackles were gone but an ozone tang hung sharp and bitter on the air. All of them could taste it. Arad didn’t have to ask to know. A dangerous spark was coming, waiting to burst into flames. No one greeted them when they entered the cargo hold and rushed to the airlock. Every step reverberated over the metal surfaces. Lights were minimized leaving darkness and shadow lurking around every corner and between the stacks of crates. It was not a safe place to be. Nowhere on the Nightingale was safe. Yosei tapped the airlock control and the door refused to open. “It’s not recognizing me. My access has been revoked.” Reaching over her shoulder, Pakko tapped twice and punched the panel. “Mine’s toast too.” “Where’s the manual override?” Arad asked. “Behind this panel. I don’t have many tools on me.” Yosei pulled a meager pair of micro-wrenches from one of her leg pouches. “You’ll have to make do. But be quick.” Dropping to her knees, Yosei attacked the side panel, digging at the hidden bolts. At least six were visible, needing to be pulled and her wrenches were manual, not power-driven. The first one hit the floor with a high-pitched clang and she went after the next. Roku kept turning in a circle, trying to shield Arad with his body. “We have to hurry. Something smells wrong.” “Look out!” Pakko jumped in front of Roku and Arad as the nearby shadow shifted, colors rippling and changing. Shichi’s strike came up short, claws raking crimson lines across Pakko’s shoulder and chest rather than Arad’s face and neck. Rolling Arad to the floor behind him, Roku shouldered Shichi away from the group. He landed on his feet a few meters away where he shifted back and forth in an arc while Roku turned and faced him, standing his ground as they squared off, growling and hissing at one another. “Clearing your ship access was the first thing I did while caring for our young Mr. Ansari.” Bryce stepped out from between a stack of crates and stopped next to Shichi, stroking his head. Yosei’s voice quivered, but she was trying to sound brave. “Don’t you mean committing murder and mutiny? Last I heard, that’s a capital offense.” Another bolt hit the floor. “I knew you’d be trouble when Hodge brought you on. You played his grief and I was the only one who saw through your game. You made him decide to breach contract and put us all at risk.” Arad shifted next to Pakko, trying to urge him to crawl closer to the door. “No one made you pull the trigger.” “Someone had to.” A tremor shook the Nightingale. The lights strobed and an alarm klaxon went off. Bryce’s normally expressionless face bloomed with surprise. The ship’s AI broke in. “Captain Southerland. A tractor beam has locked on to the ship. You’re being hailed by First Commander Bard.” The communication came to life without Bryce’s approval and Bard’s voice filled the room. “Your time’s up, Southerland.” “I’m completing my contract.” Bryce began to shout, her calm veneer peeling at the edges. Her distress drew Shichi’s attention. “It’s been withdrawn. Prepare both ships for boarding.” Her volume peaked into a full scream. “You can’t do that! I need that contract!” Roku pounced, slamming Shichi backwards and snapping out a kick to the side. It caught Bryce in the chest and sent her careening into the wall. She crumpled to the floor, barely moving. Chameleon scales rolling into oranges and reds collided with Roku’s golden fur. The pair rolled and landed on their feet, snarling and trading blows. They tore into each other in staccato freeze-frames and bursts of movement under the strobing lights. Arad said another prayer to a power he didn’t believe in for Roku’s safety while he kneeled next to Pakko, who lay on the floor, hand pressed to his chest. “Pakko, are you okay?” “Shit, that really hurt.” Rusty patches soaked Pakko’s t-shirt. The angry, red slashes marring his chest bled but didn’t appear life-threatening. At last Arad hoped not. Arad heard another bolt bounce. How may had that been? He’d lost track during the insanity. “My hand’s mangled. Can you help Yosei with the override?” “Yeah, yeah. I’m on it.” Arad lacked the strength to do more than guide Pakko to his feet using his one good hand. His body still bore too many wounds. Plus, he’d heard Bard mention both ships. He intended to confiscate the Ansariland as well. They needed off the Nightingale. Escalating animal noises drew Arad back to the fight. Half martial arts, half savagery, it was terrifying to watch. Shichi jabbed an elbow into Roku’s shoulder and raked him with his claws drawing blood, adding to the growing number of cuts already there. Roku was not winning. For every blow he landed, Shichi landed three. Arad could hear his heart rate over the alarm. Dread tangled its slimy tentacles into his head and chest. Another strike to Roku’s arm. What can I do? Two more to Roku’s stomach and thigh. I can’t watch him die like this. Roku kept glancing at them, always knowing where the soft soft humans were, herding the fight away from them. It left him distracted and it was going to get him killed. Shichi was fresh, not burdened with being cuffed for days and being shocked into submission. He was focused. Driven. And the only thing Arad had ever seen to draw his attention was… Knowing time worked against them, Arad shuffled over to Bryce, half-conscious and moaning. He hesitated, unsure if he could do it. Roku took another claw mark to the chest. Pulling the medical scissors from this pocket, Arad stood behind Bryce and stabbed her in the shoulder. Shichi’s head spun at her pained cry, and his entire body coiled in threat. One look at Arad and every scale flushed into the bloodiest shades of red. All his rancor, all his vengeful thoughts, all for Arad. Roku struck. Those claws that once scarred the metal walls when Arad lost his spacewalk tether found the unguarded patch of Shichi’s neck and ripped it open. Eyes agog, Shichi futilely clutched his neck, life spilling between his fingers in sanguine rivers as his scales greyed. His body trembled, and before his knees buckled, he lurched forward and sank his fangs into Roku’s shoulder. The agonizing roar echoed off the walls. Roku’s arm flared out straight, his hands quaking and flexing in spasm. He pried Shichi’s limp body off, leaving Roku strangely shaking. Growling uncontrollably, he placed each powerful hand on the top and lower portion of Shichi’s jaw, and tore them apart with a primal cry. Turning his head, Arad struggled not to vomit. Partly because he’d never scrub the gory image out of his head, and partly because he’d failed to save Shichi like he’d promised. Bryce had exploited his programming and gave them no choice, but it didn’t patch the deep, guilty hole festering in his stomach. Someday, he’s parse the conflicting emotions regarding the DemiShou who’d helped beat and torture him for information he didn’t have. For now, he needed to checked on Yosei and Pakko’s progress. The side panel had been tossed aside and the pair of techs were pulling the hydraulic release. Air gasped through the door as the seals parted and the hatch opened. “Got it!’ Yosei shouted. Arad risked a look back to find Roku wavering on his feet. The ship quaked again and he dropped to one knee, but didn’t rise up again. “That felt like a tractor quake.” Yosei sounded worried. Pakko’s jaw slackened. “How crazy is this Bard guy?” “Very. Why?” Like every other sanctioned authority Arad had ever known, if Bard saw this as a battle, the only acceptable outcome would be to win at any cost. “If he ramps up the tractor beam power high enough, he could crack the hull and call it an accident.” “Help me get Roku. I think he’s been poisoned.” “Like Vosh?” Pakko suddenly sounded so small and distant. Arad tried to stuff the conclusion he’d already come to down deep because they weren’t safe yet, but tears began to fall. “Maybe. I don’t know. Help me, please.” A soul wrenching wail rose over the alarm. Filled with wary tension, Arad stared as Bryce rose, allowing her emotionless facade to shred itself in tatters. She screamed as she stumbled to Shichi’s lifeless body and slumped to her knees. Curling over, she cradled the DemiShou that couldn’t embrace her back and sobbed in giant, ugly gulps. Arad knew he should feel some kind of regret, some tiny bit of sympathy because he would be no better if Roku was on the floor, but Bryce had willingly broken that part of him on the operating table without the slightest remorse, and he couldn’t bring himself to care when monsters grieved. Besides, he had his own emergency to deal with. “What do we do about Bryce?” Pakko asked. “Nothing. She wanted the Nightingale, she can keep it.” Down on one knee, Roku swayed facing the floor as blood seeped from a variety of slashes. Arad gently lifted his head, trying to see the man inside, who was vanishing. His tiger eyes were dull and unfocused, and a thin line of bloody drool hanging from his saging jaw shivered with each rapid exhale. “Roku, we can’t lift you. If you go down, we’ll never get you out of here. I won’t leave you behind.” He shook Roku by the burned fur ringing his neck. “Look at me. You have to stand up. We have to go home.” Muddy awareness grew in Roku’s eyes, and he gave a lazy nod. He nearly toppled as he struggled to his feet with a grunt, but Pakko and Arad both dove under his arms to steady him. Yosei held the door open as is kept trying to close while they shuffled to the airlock, the walk of the critically wounded. Yosei led the sad group, dashing in front then behind to open and lock doors through the temporary passage connecting the two ships. Blaring alarms greeted them on the Ansariland deck. Arad’s head pounded from the noise and Roku was faltering, so he directed the group to their bedroom, the closest place big enough on board that Roku might find comforting. It took all three to roll Roku into bed without dropping him, and it nearly happened anyways. “This is your bedroom?” Yosei reached over and picked at a chunk of peeling wall paint. “You guys need a maid.” “Not really the time…,” Arad hissed. Snapping to attention, Yosei licked his lips nervously. Sweat glossed her pale skin. “Sorry. A little nervous. I’ll run down to sick bay and get some supplies. I can help him, but you need to get us out of here.” Arad couldn’t take his eyes off Roku. Fragile and bleeding, he’d closed his eyes the moment he’d hit the bed and hadn’t reopened them. How could they expect him to walk away? “I can’t just leave him.” With a sniffling inhale, Yosei carefully took a handful of Arad’s borrowed jacket and pulled him closer. Her voice cracked like a whip even if her face didn’t share the confidence. “Captain Ansari, your access is the only one of us in the system. You are the only one who can save us all. Get to the bridge.” The command splashed cold water over Arad’s maudlin thoughts. Getting this far defied the odds, and not following through after Roku sacrificed himself to remove Shichi’s threat would be a disservice. He placed a kiss on Roku’s feverish brow and headed out. Pakko immediately followed, helping him maintain pace despite his own injuries, because his ravaged body was still a roadmap of pain and weakness. He did his best to tune out the alarms as they entered the bridge. Both men froze, awestruck as they saw the ship off the Ansariland’s bow. The original encounter with the flagship hadn’t prepared Arad for the sheer size of the vessel. Monstrous in scale, it dwarfed the view port, blocking out an visible bit of outer space. The hull’s details he’d never noticed before grew as it closed in, a mass of tech and metal and shining pinpricks swelling into full searchlights. Caught in an invisible pull, the Ansariland drifted towards a colossal landing port. A gaping maw large enough to easily house the tethered starships. Arad shook himself back into the real world. “C’mon. We can’t let that beast run us over.” Pakko helped him slump into the helmsman’s chair, and Arad groaned in relief. He was held together with fear and adrenaline and the supply was burning his meager reserves. Everything ached. After a few good breaths, he started thumbing through the controls with his one good hand as Pakko took the seat next to him. “We’re being hailed by the flagship.” Layers of trauma tainted Pakko’s voice. They needed to find someplace safe soon. He’d walked such a fine edge since they’d broken out of the cell and left Vosh’s body behind, it was a miracle Pakko hadn’t melted down by now. Arad wouldn’t blame him if he did. “Put it through. I need to stall.” Arad didn’t look over as he tried not to scream. Why couldn’t he remember the sequence to open the right control group? How many times had he been through the ship schematics? Broken fingers masquerading as fat sausages throbbed, fracturing his concentration, and he couldn’t move his intact hand faster than an addled grandparent. The murky vision out of his swollen eye wasn’t making matters easier. Pakko’s hand flew over the communications screen, showing his familiarity after repairing the Ansariland. Probably to make sure they had a competent second crew to man the ship once they’d taken over before Hodge aborted the plan. Arad shoved his resentment down. Deep down. Because he had enough to deal with as First Commander Bard’s arrogant face appeared on the monitor. “You can’t hide forever by changing the ship’s name, Midas Ascending. Or by running between vessels like vermin.” “No one’s hiding. That requires real effort. I’ve barely thought of you since the last time.” Arad barely spared Bard a glance. The pressure to find what he needed on top of all the injuries were dragging his efforts. However, he had to keep Bard talking to stay on task. There were too many reasons to obsess over the tiger who might be dying—No. He wasn’t thinking of that. “You’ve seen better days. Perhaps you should surrender before you drop dead in your seat.” Arad wanted to shine his middle finger at Bard, but he needed that hand. “I didn’t know you cared.” A shaky gasp came out of Pakko. “They have weapons locked on us.” Bard scoffed. “Of course we do. You’re the head of a dangerous criminal organization. We’re expected to take reasonable precautions for our safety as we prepare for your arrest.” “Really? Is that what you’re going with?” “Formal charges will be read to you after your vessels are confiscated.” “Making it up as you go along, I see. I’m sure you’ll have something drawn up once you need it.” Arad shook his head at Bard’s audacity even as he worked to steady his hand. Bard was just like all the rest. From the poorest street cop to corporate military, authority figures craved control. It was a Grey District specialty. As long as they felt they had the upper hand, you could ramble any stream of nonsense at them because in the end, you were beneath them. Why else would Bard waste energy taunting perps other than to jerk himself off? “You were simply lucky we underestimated you last time. A ship your size shouldn’t have space folding capabilities. Further proof of your criminal activities.” “Like you needed a justification.” Come on. Where is that sub-file? “We won’t be fooled again. If we see the first signs of fold engine charging, I won’t waste ammunition crippling your engine. You will be treated as fugitives and there will be a repeat accident of your shuttle and the previous crew. All resistance will be treated as acts of hostility.” “This sounds familiar. Pretty sure I’ve heard this before.” If his face wasn’t so hot and stressed, Arad would have rolled his eyes. He thought of ending Bard’s sanctimonious gloating from the beginning, but he had better chances of not being turned into scorching debris if he let the narcissist drone on. “I’m not going to cry if ApexCorp doesn’t have a living product to sell or not. I won’t be humiliated a second time. Enjoy your last minutes of freedom.” Communications blinked out, but Arad didn’t care. He’d already found the menu, shining and gorgeous in bright holographics. SPACE FOLD ENGINE AT FULL POWER COORDINATES LOCKED INITIATE? ***YES*** ***NO*** “I guess the shielding’s as good as Yosei says it is.” Arad wanted to smile, but anxious threads sewed his body together. The bridge vibrated under another tractor quake, and his ribs crooned a song of thorns as he braced against it. “What are you waiting for? They don’t know we’re good to go.” Pakko’s fraying sanity leaked from every pore. “The fold isn’t instant. I’m not going to get us shot before we jump.” The shivers racing over Arad’s dirty skin had nothing to do with his wounds. He hoped. It had to work. They’d been through too much to fail now. He promised to save Roku. Another blasphemous prayer rolled through his panicked brain. They piled up, weighing him down. “So what are you going to do?” Gritting his teeth to focus past the disquiet, Arad stared out the cockpit. If he didn’t stop hyperventilating, he’d pass out. The landing bay filled his compromised vision, looming ever closer. Slowly, far too slowly, its edge threw a shadow over the bow and swallowed the ship. “Their weapons can’t aim at us once we’re inside, can they?” He reached over and pressed yes. ***WARNING — PROXIMITY ALERT*** Engaging space fold will cause significant structural damage to nearby vessel. ***Safety protocol engaged — Engine paused*** Command Override Required. “Are you kidding me? Can you not just do what I ask the first time around?” Tapping the onscreen menu, he used his thumbprint to call up his captain’s privileges. Bold red letters centered in the monitor gave Arad a glimmer of hope. SAFETY OVERRIDE? ***YES*** ***NO*** Pakko’s eyes were more white than color as he clutched his chair’s armrests.“Holy fuck, you’re insane.” “No. Just too tired to put up with all these pricks.” Arad tapped the inner communications array. “Yosei! Hold on tight! This is going to be rough.” He punched the control and leaned back, bracing himself as the universe brightened and twisted itself inside out. Exploding lights and violent quaking from every direction overwhelmed the senses. The Ansariland cried out, protesting in alarms and shrieks of metal, while every wound and sealed slice of Arad’s flesh screamed out in horrible synchronicity. An eternity of mere seconds passed before he’d had all he could handle. As Arad’s consciousness faded to black, he hoped in his zeal to escape he hadn’t killed them all.
  5. Mann Ramblings

    Chapter 3

    I’ve always pronounced it: Dam-Sah-Dro-Ma it came from an elven name generator meaning “Dancing Light”
  6. Mann Ramblings

    Chapter 77

    Someone's a little bloodthirsty reader.
  7. Mann Ramblings

    Chapter 77

    No editing chores until the story's done? Got it! Thanks!
  8. Mann Ramblings

    Chapter 77

    Bryce clearly has had her own agenda for some time. Where it began, it's hard to say. At this point I'll be happy to just get our cast through this shitty situation. Run, Arad, Run!
  9. Mann Ramblings

    Chapter 77

    I'm glad he did too. I made a point not to show the awful stuff on screen because it wasn't intended to be gratuitous. Even so, it can make for a difficult read after the fact, so I tried to add a warning at the beginning.
  10. Mann Ramblings

    Chapter 77

    Hopefully I can address all of this (I think I have it all covered) as we head careening into the future.
  11. I just made a comment in MS Word using the word "bukkake" and Word autocorrected the spelling for me.


    What. The. Hell.

    1. Show previous comments  2 more
    2. Carlos Hazday

      Carlos Hazday

      When you're doing it, there's no need to know how to spell it...

    3. Daddydavek


      Practice, practice, practice!

    4. Carlos Hazday

      Carlos Hazday


      I just read the comment

  12. Mann Ramblings

    Chapter 77

    First there was darkness. Then the darkness ended with cold shards of reality. Chemical fire spread through Arad’s oversensitive flesh, forcing his eyes open and into the glaring lights. His back tried to arch as his body seized, but failed due to the unyielding bar across his chest. His ribs ached. His heart pumped at an unhealthy pace. He couldn’t scream with his teeth clenched so tight as he resisted the burn, barely able to hiss frantic air between his teeth. For an all too brief moment, he’d forgotten where he was. Then the doctor’s voice pulled him fully out of the dark his mind yearned to hide inside. “Just a little stimulant to keep you awake. We don’t want you missing anything important.” Tears ran in scorching rivers over his cheeks at the sight of Bryce as all the awareness came back. He was still strapped to her operating table. “Please… Stop,” Arad rasped, his voice having gone dry and raw some time ago. Nightmares were only supposed to haunt you while you slept. He’d found safety in the darkness. Everything was backwards. Shichi hovered nearby, sniffing at Bryce while she organized her tools. Arad wondered how long she could wait before the cravings caught hold of her and she’d need a new fix for the addiction his body created. The feeble hope died as fast as it flared. Days could pass before it overwhelmed her, and she wasn’t resisting it the way Arad had at first. He made a silent prayer to the Saints of Seven Sins that Bryce wasn’t creative enough to dose him with Syn as part of her procedure. Corrupted addicts tended to fetishize their experiences. If Arad had to risk a permanent connection—and it could likely happen—between uncontrollable lust and physical suffering, it might kill him. What an appropriate thought. The doctor had started simply enough. A razor thin cut here and there, only to be sealed closed before much blood could be lost. Eventually she bored and the cuts went far below the surface, into the meat after slicing away his shirt for better access. The skin was fused shut, but the bruising showed the internal bleeding in darkening patches. Now, Arad’s right arm was a useless apendage. Those restraints had been lifted for the most recent series of punishments, and the latticework of deep muscle lacerations throbbed far too much to risk moving. Seeing the twisted, swollen fingers on his right hand made his empty stomach churn. At least three were broken by Shichi. Ever the faithful servant, he’d done as he was told. No regret. No remorse. Arad had heard and screamed over each snap, one finger at a time. When Bryce had bored, she sent in her minion to keep Arad from becoming used to her tactics. His right eye was partially swollen shut from repeated blows from Shichi’s fist, but he could see enough to know what hall looked like. Despite being held down, he shifted his weight in an agitated attempt to create some smidgen of comfort only to have his damp clothing saturated with sweat, blood, and other fluids refuse to peel away from his clammy skin. The whole time he’d laid there, between every abuse, Bryce repeated some variation of the same question. “What happened to the wolf DemiShou? Where is Go?” Every time, Arad only had one version of the answer. “I don’t know. I never saw him.” The doctor never liked that answer. After the first hour or so, Arad was convinced she believed him. He’d screamed through it all, confessing everything he knew about Torrins, Roku, and the other DemiShou. It didn’t stop her switching from elegant sadism to Shichi’s brutality, no doubt as payback for not knowing what she wanted to hear, or because deep down she was really just that sick. Arad had lost track of how long this went on before he’d passed out and Bryce had woken him. With a ragged inhale, Arad steeled himself, promising to be strong in spite of the terror hooked solidly into his tattered flesh. If these were his last moments, he would bear them with what little dignity he could muster. Which wasn’t much, considering how hard he trembled from either the cold, the trauma, or both. Bryce selected the familiar scalpel, its razor edge stained red. “I have three of the four DemiShou in my possession. I believe you when you say you don’t know where the wolf is.” “Then you’ll let me go?” “I’m afraid not. You may have gone from cabin boy to captain in a bizarre set of circumstances, but you were present the entire time the DemiShou were housed on your vessel. I’m convinced there’s some tiny bit of information, some random bit of pillow talk hidden in your memories that will give me a lead to follow.” Bryce sighed. “Our results have been less than stellar so far. We may need to apply more drastic measures to dredge them up.” Arad’s spine braced, knowing things could only go worse from here, because Torrins had his secrets and took them to his grave. Even when the man drank—which wasn’t often—he was too much of a control freak to babble. He offered nothing worthy of gossip to the man who shared his bed. The arrangment with Arad didn’t come with confidences. Bryce may not have shown the satisfaction on her face, it radiated from every line in her body. She was eager, looking forward to the next step in interrogation, but allowed the quiet to ratchet the tension higher. The only audible noise was Arad’s short, rapid breaths until the ship’s AI broke the stillness. “Captain Southerland, the Nightingale is being hailed.” Mouth pursing at the interruption, Bryce replied to the ceiling. “Forward it to my location.” A gentle static pop heralded the communique opening through the hidden speakers, the only precursor to an unwelcome, yet familiar voice. “Nightingale, this is First Commander Hyland Bard, Alpha One Flagship. Respond at once.” Arad gasped, a new layer of dread spiking into the chaos. Bryce’s gaze flitted to his face, clearly noticing the tension he failed to hide. “This is Captain Southerland of the Nightingale. What can I do for you, First Commander?” “You’re not the captain. Where’s Hodge?” “There’s been a change of venue. I’m a busy woman, Commander. I assume there’s a reason for your call.” “My vessel is en route. I’ve been seconded to ApexCorp to retrieve stolen property. Prepare to be boarded.” Bard’s arrogance came through in full force, the bearing of a man whose rank allowed no amount of insubordination. Since losing the Midas Ascending, his impatience had grown alongside his attitude and Arad feared a clash with Bryce, because who would survive in the aftermath? “If this is regarding what I believe it is, I’m currently under contract with ApexCorp to retrieve the property.” “Your contract has been revised.” Annoyance tinged Bryce’s tone. “I was not notified—” “I am not discussing the details of confidential documents outside of an encrypted command channel. Contact me when you’ve done so.” The communication’s abrupt cutoff left a still silence in the air. “Ship, reroute a command channel to the infirmary.” The synthetic voice was polite yet devoid of emotion. “I’m sorry, Captain. Command channel locations are fixed on the bridge or day cabin. Rerouting is not possible.” Bryce set the scalpel down on the tray hard enough to make the other instruments jump and clatter, losing their methodical alignment. Arad wasn’t sure which thread he found more troublesome, but Bard on board would lead to a different type of disaster. “Don’t trust him. Bard is the pirate that crippled the Ansariland to get to the Demis. Once he has them, he won’t need you anymore. He’ll cleanse the ship like he did Torrins and the crew.” The narrowing of her eyes was nearly imperceptible. “Why are you telling me this? Do you honestly think it will protect you from more questioning?” Arad’s pained laugh lacked any shred of humor. “I’m dead whatever happens. I just want to save Roku.” Meeting his gaze, Bryce pondered Arad without the slightest arch of her brow. Focusing on her cold stare kept him from paying attention to her bloodstained hands. He winced as she pulled off her surgical gloves with an aggressive snap. “It’s fortunate I still have need of you to keep Roku in line. Don’t go away. I’ll be back soon to continue our conversation.” Bryce turned and strode to the exit, gesturing for Shichi to follow. The door swished shut leaving Arad grateful to finally be alone. “Can’t wait.” He wanted to cheer, but he had to press the tiny advantage. His right arm wasn’t shackled and the controls were within reach. Hopefully he could use them correctly, or the chance would be lost. It might have only been an arm length away, but given his current condition, it might as well have been mounted on his destroyed shanty in Grey District. It hurt so much, but he told himself the pain was fake, he could endure it, just a little longer.. Sweat burst across his skin as he reached over the bed’s edge to the adjustments. He’d watched when she’s released his arm earlier. It was the small panel next to the large one. The controls didn’t seem to be overly complicated, but he had to find the right spot on the panel, and do it with his thumb since his broken fingers couldn’t do the job. A baritone buzz mocked him with an incorrect choice. The restraining bar across his chest and tender ribs prevented a deep inhale and exhale. As best he could, Arad relaxed for a moment before trying again. Maybe the other corner of the pad. Another buzz. “Oh come on…” Arad’s eyes welled in frustration. There were no guarantees on how long Bryce and Shichi would be occupied. First Commander Bard’s arrival provided an opportunity, but could hardly be called a blessing. It bought Arad time, but he could imagine far too many ways the man’s presence would doom them all. If ApexCorp tapped him, escaping was the only option. Again. Groaning at the effort, Arad stretched his thumb down to another edge of the panel. Please, please don’t make this worse. Wet salt leaked from his eyes crushed tight. He swore if this worked, he would find the street preacher who used to shout brimstone scripture in his face and join his congregation. A bright chirp sounded and the entire series of restraints retreated into the table with a gentle whirr. Choked laughter and tears of relief spilled out of him. “Oh man, I’m going to need so much therapy after this.” The release lightened his soul, but he could only indulge for a moment. Danger lingered, and he was damaged goods at best. Rolling out of the bed squeezed more awful noises out of him, and when his feet touched the floor, he had to rest a moment before he could bear his full weight on them. His bare torso chilled in the recycled air, and so many points and lines on his body protested. The effort left him lightheaded. He’d never felt so fragile before. Even so, he’d never join the church in Grey District. They were a bunch of certifiable kooks. Given his physical condition, he needed a weapon, but couldn’t bring himself to touch the scalpel or the wad of bloodstained gloves. He pocketed the scissors Bryce used to cut away his shirt then picked up a pair of clean medical-grade pliers made of heavy surgical steel. Thankfully she hadn’t yet found a use for them. He wished he had the energy to rummage through cabinets and shelves. Bryce had a fully stocked infirmary, which meant drugs and other items with multiple uses, but he couldn’t waste valuable time trying to decipher them. Not now, when if they came back and cornered him in the room, he’d never survive. Now that he had his opportunity, Arad had places to be. However, nowhere on the Nightingale was safe or out of her sight. To give himself a fleeting chance, he would need to put out her eyes. Weilding the pliers in his shaky hand, he hammered each and every monitor, splintering the fragile screens into masses of static. Nothing hurt so much and felt so good at the same time. Except maybe his moment of pure pettiness when he rearranged the pieces on her chessboard. “Pawn blinds Queen, you bitch.” Leaning against the counter, Arad stalled to ease his panting, his stamina too thready for strenuous action. Saying he was held together with adhesive and string wasn’t too far fetched. He needed a chance to recover. Maybe he’d get lucky and have the chance later. Arad staggered out of the infirmary, bouncing off the door jamb crossing the threshold. Cradling his right arm, he closed and locked the door before cracking the control panel as deftly as he had Bryce’s bank of viewscreens. Ignoring the tearing fire in each step, he trudged down the hall in the direction of the brig. Weariness flooded each step, but he let the goal give him strength. “I’m coming for you, Roku.”
  13. Mann Ramblings

    Chapter 76

    There's a whole lot of fury going on for this chapter, and some serious hate for Bryce. It's well deserved! I hope the reason is that I've written well enough to invest readers into the story and draw the reaction out of them as I'd hoped. It makes me feel like I've done it right because there's no joy in this moment. Adrift is in a dark place and I wish I could tell you more, but things are escalating and I don't want to ruin any surprises. I'm working hard to give you as large of chapters as possible until the end because the muse is willing. I'm excited to be this deep into a work I've committed to for so long. Stay with me. Things are getting exciting. Thank you all for reading!!!
  14. Mann Ramblings

    Chapter 76

    Nothing short of a plasma torch could release him from Shichi’s steel grip, yet Arad cursed and thrashed until they crossed the border of the infirmary. When no one stopped inside the lines for decontamination, Arad freaked. His feet flailed out recklessly, kicking over a tray of instruments. Only when Shichi slammed him onto a bed hard enough to force the wind out of his lungs did he stop yelling. “Be quiet or I’ll have Shichi remove your tongue. You don’t need it to keep Roku’s imprinting instinct in check.” Bryce tapped at the bed’s controls near his right hand and restraints spun out, lashing him down at the ankles, thighs, waist, chest, arms, and wrists in the space of a second. Anger and fear braided into a tight coil, making it difficult for to find his breath as Shichi stepped back to give Bryce room to maneuver. She wove around the pristine space, picking up the scattered medical devices he’d knocked to the floor. “Where’s number five?” Bryce asked without looking. Arad’s had never been so furious and frightened in equal measure, but the fear was gaining and confusion blunted his racing thoughts enough to answer. “Number five? What are you talking about?” Pausing, she sighed, the soft sound filled with quiet aggravation. “Number five…the wolf DemiShou.” “I don’t know what you mean.” Bryce set down her instruments and stepped closer, forcing herself to speak slowly as one would to a child. “Hachi, eight. Shichi, seven. Roku, six. Go, five. They’re numbers, not names.” “Go was a wolf?” “Good. You can understand me. Where is he?” “I have no idea.” Bryce’s jaw drew tight, and a fleeting hint of mania danced in her dark eyes. “Don’t take me for a fool. I’ve seen the unsecured logs. Even if your promotion to captain was a fluke due to those morons’s deaths, you were still part of the crew before Torrins picked up this custom group for delivery. Time stamps prove it. The wolf is the only product unaccounted for.” “I never laid eyes on him. When I found them, his cryotube was already empty.” Arad’s breathing came in quick, unhealthy puffs, and his pulse rate had yet to slow, but it couldn’t stop his memories from sharpening into focus. The day it all began, he’d walked onto the bridge and interrupted the conversation between Torrins, Franc, and Daiko. Are you sure they’re still going to be there? We’ve already lost Go. Go, the wolf had likely died, possibly the way Roku almost did had he not been present. Torrins had sent Arad into the maintenance shafts for hours before, probably to given them a chance to dump the body without him knowing, because he wasn’t really part of the crew, and they needed to keep their secrets. There wasn’t any other reason for them to have parked so close to that star. Destroying evidence. Not knowing whether the truth would be good or bad, Arad held it to himself as potential leverage. Bryce’s subtle unhappiness resulted in impatient movements that led her back to her workstation, ignoring Arad for now. Arad had every reason to worry, since Bryce could have asked all of this without resorting to killing Vosh and Hodge. If only he could forget the sight of each of them going down and her clinical regard for homicide. He tried to rein in his nerves, because repeating the scene in his head roiled his stomach, and the brace around his neck restricted him enough to be a problem. The last thing he needed was to drown in puke. Since he could look around—within reason—Arad scanned the infirmary, hoping for the tiniest bit of information he could add to the truth about Go. Something he could use. When he craned his head to the right, Shichi stepped into his sightline. Unobstructed by murky cryofluids, Arad could see the details he’d previously missed. Practically carved in stone, Shichi’s body appeared layered in a fine, pebbled texture which hyper-defined each sculpted muscle. The chiseled effect’s severity made him look larger and more dangerous than Roku. Every color shimmered over his skin, courtesy of the flexible scales vying for attention, although the dominant sheen currently cast shades of green and blue. From what he’d seen, it could be anything Shichi wanted. Miniature rainbows rippled down every inch from the top of Shichi’s hairless skull to his powerful chest and abs, leading to the proof swinging between his reptile thighs that DemiShou designers were all a bunch of pervs. “Can we put some pants on him? I’ve seen enough bare penis for one day.” A humorless laugh escaped that nearly triggered Arad to cry. Settling himself would be harder than he thought because he knew his life sat more precariously now than it did before inside the cell. Bryce gave a sultry chuckle and raked her dark gaze over Shichi’s naked body. “Why would I do that? He’s perfect the way he is.” Shichi kept inching closer to her as she moved around, the imprinting obvious to anyone who could see. His otherwise cold eyes, fixated on her every move. Roku admitted he’d struggled in the beginning to keep his hands to himself until Arad had been ready, but their introduction had been complicated with medical emergency, Syn, and Roku’s half-conscious instincts. Bryce may have otherwise been insufferably collected, but it didn’t look like she was being coy regarding his needs. The last thing he wanted was to watch her get mounted by the lizard Demi, so he turned his head to search out the other side of the room before anything went pornographic. Searching the room did more to draw his fears in line than rummaging his memories. It wasn’t extinguished, rather drawn into a constant flow he could tune out. Somewhat. Every major area of the Nightingale could be seen live through the monitors lining the wall. One of them must have been the brig, but it sat outside his field of vision, there were so many screens. The desk on the far wall, while still tidy, held a few personal items including a checkered game board hosting a well in-progress chess match. Even from the awkward vantage point, he could see it clear enough. Half the pieces were already captured on both sides. White held the advantage. A castling would be required to prevent checkmate. It explained her Knight takes Bishop reference. Interesting that she saw Hodge as the Bishop and not the King. Did she see herself as the Queen? It didn’t take much to guess she saw Arad as a lowly, sacrificial Pawn. “That’s a chess board. An antique game of strategy from the Old World that never loses its elegance. I don’t expect someone of your status to understand, so I won’t waste time going into detail.” Someone of Arad’s status? Arad had been weaned on chess well before his parents had enrolled him into a private elementary school. If not for his family’s greed, he would still be living a life of privilege Bryce could only hope to beg for. What kind of classist stooge would he have grown up to be then? She would be seen as beneath him, less than in every way, and the irony wasn’t lost on him. A scheming murderer believed herself to be better in wealth, breeding, and intellect than a young, penniless man who lived on the streets even though he once sat at a much different dinner table. If that wasn’t proof that constructs of social standing were a farce. A shame that it took a psychopath to make him realize being a slug was just a worthless word to describe a man’s circumstances, not a rank or true value of person. If he hadn’t been strapped to an operating table, he might have cheered. Closing his eyes, Arad inhaled deep through his nose, swallowing against a new rise of panic. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. A line of hot salt seeped out, trailing to his temple and soaking the hairline. Opening his eyes to find Bryce standing over him did nothing to improve the situation. The doctor examined him up and down, the faintest sneer curling his lips. “You’re such a filthy human being.” Arad’s voice trembled as he babbled. “In all fairness, I haven’t had the chance to bathe recently, and when you go unconscious, you tend to piss yourself. Not my fault. If our places were reversed, you’d be a filthy human too.” “Well…not for long.” When it appeared, he wanted to slap Bryce’s smug grin off her face. With a hammer. Creepy smile aside, her comment tripped a relay in his head. The significance spun wild and clear, a beacon in his hysterics. He gasped as the reason coalesced into something solid. “Is that what they promised you? To turn you into DemiShou?” “Aren’t you the clever one. But, yes. With my revised contract, once I deliver the four of them, that is my main compensation as well as a stipend.” “Why would you do that?” Her head titled, the only visible sign she thought he was being ridiculous. “Why wouldn’t I? After all, they are the superior species.” “Is that what you told Vosh?” “Vosh was a necessary sacrifice. He wanted to be human rather than be better. I couldn’t leave a dangerous bear at my back that couldn’t be trusted. He had to go.” “What did you do to him?” Bryce pulled the hypodermic gun from her pocket. “A type of genetically engineered venom. It’s unique to Shichi’s design, but he was kind enough to provide an ample amount. I needed something potent enough to take down the strongest DemiShou on board.” “Roku is stronger than Vosh. You saw.” Cocking her delicate brow, Bryce shook her head with a sigh. “Roku is a product. Not an adversary.” “What about Hodge?” “He was in the way.” The fact Bryce was so willing to answer Arad’s questions didn’t give him feel any sense of security. Only the certifiably insane or stupid confessed—or bragged—every detail of crimes when they were already ahead. And Bryce was not stupid. But maybe, just maybe, if he could keep her talking, rambling on about all her machinations, he might manage to piece together some sort of plan to save himself and Roku. He hadn’t given up on his promises. Hopefully he could drag something useful out of her, some tiny tidbit he could use, but his ability to stay focused frayed with each passing second he continued to be exposed to her ruthless lack of empathy. He’d met enough heartless executives growing up, but Bryce made them all look like whining toddlers. The danger was crested and it was all he could do to not start screaming. “So you had Shichi kill him. How did he do that thing? Appear out of the hallway the way he did?” “A custom camouflaging skill his client requested for clandestine mercenary work. A biological version of high-end military skin suits. Designs were initially extrapolated from Earth chameleons. Shichi’s is infinitely more advanced.” “I’ve never seen that before.” Bryce scoffed. “Of course not. Police officers don’t require that kind of sophistication to control the unwashed masses.” “What happens when Shichi’s client wants him back?” “They’ll change my scent in processing which will break his imprint. Shichi will be free and reintroduced to the correct buyer. A shame that won’t be your future when Roku is acclimated with a new master. I imagine you’ll be another nameless slug piled at the top of the incinerator heap.” “Once ApexCorp turns you, I hope they sell you to a zoo.” A stoic mask came over Bryce’s face, washing away any last hints of emotion. She opened a small drawer and drew out a pair of surgical gloves. With slow, deliberate expertise, she pulled them on without looking, covering both hands and her coat’s form-fitting sleeves to mid-forearm. She raised a hand, stretching out each finger in a wave, before she balled it into a fist and struck Arad in the face, breaking his nose. Crying out in blinding pain, Arad coughed and sputtered, spitting all over himself in reflex so he wouldn’t choke on the sudden pool of blood rushing down his throat. Searing agony flared through his nose and cheeks, tearing loose the dam blocking his tears. “That was for calling me voyeur bitch.” Bryce gestured to Shichi, and her obedient servant rolled a surgical cart over to her lined with various medical instruments, many of which were mundane enough for Arad to recognize despite his blurry eyes. She selected a slender scalpel from the grouping, the glow from several screens glinting off the blade. “Now, I need all four DemiShou to fulfill my contract and you’re going to help me. I’m going to ask you about the wolf’s location. If I don’t like the answer, I’m afraid there will be consequences.” Rapid breaths sped into erratic gasps as Arad thrashed against the bed’s restraints to no effect. His stuttering voice went shrill as he fixated on the knife’s near-invisible edge. “P…Please. Don’t do this. I don’t know where he is.” Bryce’s inexpressive face didn’t move a fraction, but an unmistakable storm glinted from behind her eyes. “I don’t believe you.” He jerked again, trying to flee as she brought the scalpel closer to his arm. Inside his head, Arad screamed. Roku, I’m so sorry.
  15. Mann Ramblings

    Chapter 75

    I'll put that into the Hat of Plot Ideas and give it a good shake and see what comes out.
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